…This tremendous expansion [of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI)] has not only made wildfires more dangerous, it has made them more expensive. A recent audit by the General Accounting Office detailed the tremendous increase in the costs of fighting wildfires (hitting $1.9 billion in 2006 and $1.37 billion in 2007) and wildland fire managers place most of the blame for the rising costs on fighting more fires in the expanding WUI. Analysts have pegged the costs of protecting homes as high as 50 to 90 percent of the total of all wildland fire management costs.
As bad as the WUI problem has become for wildland fire managers, a new study published by the Montana-based, independent non-profit research organization, Headwater Economics, shows that it could become much worse. Headwater Economics researcher, Patty Gude and her colleagues, found that only 14 percent of the available WUI in western states is currently developed, leaving 86 percent available for new construction.
The researchers worked to identify the extent of residential development adjacent to publicly-owned forest lands in the West using census data and maps from the Protected Area Database as well as the National Land Cover Dataset.
Gude says that the results even surprised the research team. “We expected to see something different in terms of how much is developed. We thought the extent would be much greater, but it is actually only a small proportion of what it could be. That means the potential exists for the problem to be much worse. If protecting homes from fire is expensive now, the cost when more land is developed may swamp the firefighting agency’s budgets entirely.”… (more…)